Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a weekly columnist and senior writer for The American Prospect. He also writes for the Plum Line blog at The Washington Post and The Week and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.

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Photo of the Day, Consumer Mania Edition

These young people in Tokyo are dispassionately assessing the new offerings from the Apple corporation. Will they buy an Apple Watch? Perhaps they will, but only after a long, thoughtful process of consideration in which they are assured that the product will be of sufficient benefit to justify its high price.

Republican Candidates Troop to Festival of Paranoia and Fear-Mongering

The National Rifle Association starts its annual convention today, and there will be plenty of time spent bashing both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, not least because the speakers include Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Rick Santorum, and even Donald Trump. The only major Republican presidential candidates who won't be there are Chris Christie and Rand Paul, but according to Politico, Paul was snubbed because of his association with the National Association for Gun Rights, a smaller organization that apparently thinks the NRA is a bunch of wimps and compromisers when it comes to the Second Amendment.

Jeb Bush is one of the only candidates who doesn't himself own a gun, but as The Wall Street Journal reminds us today, he's got a trump card: Bush is the man who gave America George Zimmerman. In 2005, he happily signed Florida's "stand your ground" law, which has proven such a smashing success. As an investigation by The Tampa Bay Times found in 2013, "In nearly a third of the cases the Times analyzed, defendants initiated the fight, shot an unarmed person or pursued their victim—and still went free." And sure, stand your ground laws are associated with higher rates of homicide, but that's the price you sometimes have to pay for freedom.

I'm not sure if Jeb will bring that up in his speech—unlike most of his opponents, he seems to have an awareness that when there are TV cameras pointed at you, doing what you can to win over the room isn't always the best idea in the long run. But one thing none of the candidates is likely to say is that when it comes to guns, it really doesn't matter who the president is.

Even if you agree with the NRA that Barack Obama is an obsessive gun-grabber who would rip the .22 from a toddler's outstretched arms if he could, he's been spectacularly unsuccessful at actually grabbing anybody's guns. Even in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, we couldn't get the most reasonable expansion of background checks passed. The ATF just pulled a proposal to ban a certain kind of armor-piercing ammunition because of the concerns of "sportsmen" (because what are you going to do when you come across a beautiful ten-point buck and it turns out he's wearing Kevlar?).

The NRA is telling people that if Hillary Clinton is elected, then watch out—she's coming for your guns. Which of course means you should really start stocking up now, in addition to donating to the NRA. But if the last few years have taught us anything, it's that the bully pulpit is no match for a lock on Congress. I don't get the sense that Clinton has much of a stomach for a fight on guns, whatever her personal views are, but it wouldn't matter even if she did. If there isn't going to be any gun control legislation passed after 20 elementary school kids get slaughtered, when is it going to happen?

Of course, the NRA can't say that. Without the threat of future gun-grabbing, you can't keep your constituents in a state of fear. It's a parallel to the way they imagine the world in general—Wayne LaPierre is always talking about the "killers, robbers, rapists, gang members who have spread like cancer in every community across our nation," as though Americans were living in a post-apocalyptic hellscape that makes Mad Max look like some sort of whimsical Noel Coward play.

What I wonder is whether the NRA members who hear that really believe it anymore. Do they still think that America is just one election away from the jackbooted government thugs kicking down your door to confiscate the rifle your grandfather gave you (and the 20 others in your collection)? Maybe they do.

The Remarkable Persistence of Crackpot Economics in the GOP

The most horrifying article you can read today is not about Ayatollah Khamenei's troubling comments on the Iran nuclear deal, it's this piece from Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post about how all the GOP presidential candidates are lining up to receive the wisdom of Arthur Laffer as they formulate their economic plans. This is the rough equivalent of doctors seeking to lead the American College of Pediatricians competing to see which one can win the favor of Jenny McCarthy. Behold:

As the 2016 GOP primary season takes off, Laffer is more in demand than ever before, with Republican candidates embracing tax-cut-for-the-rich policies even as they bemoan economic inequality. Candidates have been meeting with him in recent weeks, and on Friday in Nashville, he says, his schedule includes Rick Perry at 10 a.m., Ben Carson at noon, Jeb Bush at 1:15 p.m. and Bobby Jindal at 5. Dinner is scheduled with Ted Cruz. He has already met at least once with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. …

Some time ago, Laffer recounted, he sat down with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who was hoping the economist would bless his flat-tax plan. Laffer critiqued it instead as having too many complicated, economy-distorting features. He recalled Paul expressing disappointment he couldn't endorse it.

After that sit-down, Paul's advisers kept calling Laffer, he said. When Paul announced his presidential run this week, he touted a tax plan far more in line with Laffer's vision.

Laffer's theory is that cutting taxes for the wealthy not only brings an explosion of economic growth but pays for itself; give millionaires and billionaires a break, and the resulting economic activity will be so spectacular that more revenue will come in despite the lower rates. Laffer reduced this idea to the famous "Laffer curve," which he supposedly sketched on a napkin in 1974 and thereby seduced generations of Republican politicians. It took the perfectly sensible idea that if all income was taxed at 100 percent then no one would have any incentive to work, and turned that into a claim that virtually any reduction in the top rate will increase revenues—and the converse as well, that increasing the top rate will always reduce revenues and stifle growth.

If that were true, then the Clinton years would have been a period of dismal economic doldrums, followed by the glorious George W. Bush boom. In fact, Laffer's theory has been as thoroughly disproven as phrenology or the notion that the stars are pinholes in the blanket Zeus laid across the sky; Republican economist Greg Mankiw famously referred to those who believe Laffer as "charlatans and cranks." But in a world where Mike Huckabee convinces people that the Bible contains a secret cancer cure and baseball players wear titanium necklaces in the belief that doing so will align their humours or some such nonsense, there will always be a market for crackpottery, particularly the kind that offers a justification for the thing you already want to do.

And this is why Republicans continue to seek Arthur Laffer's wisdom and repeat the completely, thoroughly, 100 percent false claim that cutting taxes for the wealthy will always increase revenue. They want those tax cuts for ideological and moral reasons, and when someone with a claim to expertise tells them that not only is there no cost but that such cuts will actually help the little people too, well that's just too seductive for words. When the world shows them that cutting taxes on the wealthy actually reduces revenue, it doesn't make them revise their belief that doing so is right and just, because that belief isn't subject to the test of evidence.

Candidates get a lot of flack for having advisers or supporters who have committed various sins, even if there was no reasonable way the candidate could have been expected to know about or approve those sins, and they won't have any impact on what the candidate would do if elected. We'll spend days hounding a candidate because some consultant he hired sent out some offensive tweets five years ago, or because someone who endorsed him said something outrageous at a rally. But here we have a case in which candidates are voluntarily and knowingly asking for the advice and approval of one of America's foremost economic quacks, specifically for the purposes of formulating policy that would affect every American's life. Is anybody going to ask them what the hell they're doing?


Step One, Acknowledge Climate Change. Step Two, Recognize It's Our Fault.

Posted by guest-blogger Amanda Teuscher

The past couple weeks have been a bit of a mixed bag in the debate about climate change and environmental policy.

On April 1, Governor Jerry Brown imposed water restrictions on California for the first time—a 25 percent usage reduction meant to alleviate the state’s historic drought (which one recent study indicated was worsened by climate change). On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced an initiative that connects global warming to public health concerns such as asthma.

Then there was the news in The Washington Post that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the influential conservative state policy organization, was threatening legal action if activist groups continued telling all ALEC’s rich friends like Google and Facebook that ALEC denies climate change. This is a bit rich considering its work protecting the interests of fossil fuel industries (as Ari Phillips at ThinkProgress writes, “Whether the group acknowledges climate change is somewhat beside the point if it doesn’t want to do anything about it.”), but it did prompt Dana Milbank of the Post to say, “There is no denying it: Climate-change deniers are in retreat.

That all might sound like great news for environmentalists—enemy retreat is a good thing. But science-deniers weren’t the only enemies of environmental regulation; they were just a convenient cover. On Tuesday, David Roberts at Grist offered a sobering analysis of the demise of the debate over climate science, saying the shift away from denying the broad scientific consensus that global warming was real was “not because any flood of solutions is forthcoming, but because the science fight has become a distraction from the real work, the important work, which is blocking solutions and protecting the interests of the wealthy.”

Roberts claims that conservative efforts to scare the public away from environmental regulation rely on the same government-is-evil arguments conservatives use on economic issues. It makes sense—with more young voters considering the anti-science wing of the GOP to be backwards and a little out of touch, it’s better to drop the denialism cover. Even Senator Rand Paul, in his quest to appeal to younger voters, voted for an amendment stating that climate change is real, and (partly! just partly) human-made. (Don’t worry, though; if elected, he’s probably not actually going to do anything about it.)

But it might be even easier than focusing on the anti-government-intervention argument, because it turns out you don’t have to actually say you think humans caused it—the necessary step connecting acknowledgment of climate change to public push for proactive environmental policy. And conservatives might be able to continue to get away with that because less than half of the country believes climate change is caused by humans, according to a statistical model from Yale and Utah State University, and only about a third of Americans believe that there’s agreement among scientists. In the researchers’ maps depicting this consensus (or lack thereof) by congressional district, it’s easy to see why real proactive legislation might not be in the immediate future.

It’s really an effective strategy: Just say you know there’s a problem, but a problem that was naturally inevitable, and then you don’t have to do anything about it because, well, what could you possibly do? You could even go so far as Republicans have in California (including possible presidential candidate Carly Fiorina), who are boldly saying that environmentalists are the real culprits behind the state’s drought.

And really, that could be how the debate about what to do about climate change manifests in 2016, specifically in the Republican primary. Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz both voted "no" on that climate-change amendment earlier this year, denying that people have anything to do with global warming. If a majority of Americans aren't going to tell them they should—or even can—do anything about climate change, appearing to be anti-science is unlikely to hurt their political fortunes.

Then again, yesterday was a cold day in the nation’s capital—hovering in the 40s—which still matters when there’s a certain chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee who uses snowballs as evidence that global warming is a hoax.


The Inequality of Water

(AP Photo)

People stand outside Detroit City Hall, protesting thousands of residential water-service shutoffs by Detroit's water department, during a rally in Detroit, Thursday, July 24, 2014.

Posted by guest-blogger Sam Ross-Brown.

Late last month, the City of Baltimore began notifying thousands of residents that their water may soon be shut off due to lack of payment. As Sarah Lazare reports for Common Dreams, residents owing more than $250 in payments going back at least six months were notified that they had 10 days to pay their bills in full or have their taps shut off. The number of residents who received a notice last month nears 25,000, though Food & Water Watch estimates that a full 75,000 Baltimore residents are in danger of losing running water in their homes.

What’s worse, the shut-offs serve to deepen the racial and economic divisions in a deeply unequal city. Baltimore’s poverty rate is nearly twice the rate nationwide while the cost for utilities like water has jumped more than 40 percent over the past three years. The shut-offs are set to disproportionately impact Baltimore’s large non-white majority, despite the fact that a few hundred businesses collectively owe more than $15 million in unpaid water bills to the city.

Baltimore’s threat to shut off its residents’ water supply echoes a similar move by the City of Detroit in the summer of 2014. As Kristen Doerer reported for the Prospect last August, city officials in Detroit shut off running water to some 17,000 residents who were behind on their payments, most of them poor and non-white. After an international outcry, and an unprecedented warning from the United Nations that the shut-off violated basic human rights, the city backed off. As in Baltimore, households represented the vast majority of water shut-offs, despite private businesses owing more than ten times as much on average.

Although the water crises in Baltimore and Detroit are not climate-based, the experiences of these cities have a lot to say about how the politics of scarcity may play out on a rapidly warming planet.

A case in point is California, which is now in Year Four of the worst drought it’s ever recorded. In response, state officials have mandated a 25 percent across-the-board cut in water use. But oddly, the new mandate exempted industries like agriculture and even fossil-fuel extractors, which together account for more than 80 percent of the state’s water consumption. As in Baltimore and Detroit, residents in California make up a small share of the state’s water footprint—around 20 percent—and yet they’re the ones making the largest sacrifices.  

And while mainstream coverage has spilled a lot of ink over how the cuts will impact the pristine lawns of Pasadena and Orange County, those most impacted will likely be the farm workers of the Central Valley, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. As Julia Wong writes for In These Times, the drought has already led to job losses in the tens of thousands, and threatens thousands more. It’s also led a steep spike in water prices for small towns like Cantua Creek near Fresno, leading many residents to fall behind on payments, risking dry taps. (Sound familiar?) “Farmworkers are not getting any support from the growers,” UFW organizer Antonio Cortes told Wong. “The growers have support from the governor and the federal government, but the farmworkers get nothing.”

What this strategy also means, reports Mark Hertsgaard for The Daily Beast, is that California’s water scarcity will likely just get worse. With reservoirs and mountain snow-packs shrinking faster every year, farmers in the Central Valley are now drilling deeper and deeper to access a limited supply of groundwater. This agricultural version of an arms race not only privileges some of the nation’s largest agribusinesses—the ones that can afford to drill deeper and faster than everybody else—it also threatens the state water system’s last lifeline. “This is the real potential doomsday scenario in California,” Hertsgaard told Democracy Now! A barren aquifer doesn’t mean more cutting back—it means collapse.

In a sense, the real danger of California’s drought, and climate change as a whole, is not that it’ll force us to cut back or make sacrifices. (Imagine an FDR-era response to exceptional drought; this stuff is doable.) It’s that the structural barriers and inequities of our 21st century economy and political system don’t allow for the kind of mass, emergency action that a warming planet demands. As Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, This Changes Everything, climate change is approaching at the worst possible historical moment: At a time when the planet is demanding radical change, “the only kind of contraction our current system can manage is a brutal crash, in which the most vulnerable will suffer most of all.”  

Another way to look at it is that we’ve reached a point where two of the most immediate water crises the country now faces—Baltimore and Detroit—have nothing to do with climate. They exist entirely within a broken economic and social system, and yet they’re every bit as dangerous to public health and human rights as California’s record-breaking drought. Responding to climate change in a serious way not only means taking a hard look at our energy systems and lifestyles. It also means addressing how the politics of water and carbon impact the realities of inequality and injustice.